THE TIGERS' LAST STAND
No good answers for bad year by talent-rich club
BY SHAWN WINDSOR • FREE PRESS SPORTS WRITER • September 26, 2008
They were supposed to score 1,000 runs. And win 100 games. And march through the playoffs. And into the World Series. And when they were done, they were going to pile into the back of pickup trucks and ride down Woodward, waving to thousands of fans.
Then the Tigers came north. And lost the opener. And the second game. And the third game. They lost the first seven, and before the weather warmed up, a winter's worth of expectation had burst.
Here it is six months later and the weather is about to cool off, and the Tigers are still losing, including 12 of the past 14 games. Curtis Granderson still isn't sure what happened.
"One day we'd get great pitching and wouldn't hit. One day we'd hit great and not pitch. Or we'd pitch great, hit great but not play defense. It was 'pick which way we lose today.' "
He was sitting next to his locker at Comerica Park this week preparing to play the Kansas City Royals, who had beaten them the night before. It was the Royals who had swept the Tigers to open the season. And now they were back, shoveling dirt onto one of the most dispiriting seasons in Detroit sports history.
When was the last time a team had such high expectations and couldn't manage a .500 record? When was the last time a team was expected to compete for a championship and instead spent the end fighting to stay out of last place?
"What went wrong?" manager Jim Leyland asked himself this week. "Look at the numbers. We've got 71 wins (now 72). Wish we'd done something different? Yeah, I wish we'd won more games."
This was Tuesday, and Leyland was talking to the media in his office. Sometimes his daily chats are short and clinical; sometimes they are conversational and full of humor, and sometimes they are intense, as this was one was.
He spent the first 15 minutes chatting about the last week of the season ("you've got to grind it out") and the winter ("everybody better do what they need to do to step it up") and the way the season has descended into "disarray."
And then he cut loose.
"I stink," he said. "With the year we've had ... I stink. But I can tell you one thing, I ain't the Lone Ranger."
Leyland said the story of this season could be found in the numbers.
The Tigers have the third-worst ERA in the American League and the second-worst fielding percentage. But the story is beyond the numbers.
At least once this season, Leyland wondered if his team was a little too comfortable with losing. Rod Allen, the team's television color analyst, saw it in the spring.
"I brought it up to Mario (Impemba)" -- his play-by-play partner -- "but I didn't tell anybody else," Allen said this week. "I didn't like the feeling at the time. There was something about it. I just didn't see it coming together."
They didn't get outs when they needed, and they didn't get hits when they needed. In short, they didn't make plays, the kind third baseman Brandon Inge made Monday when he scrambled to his left to snatch a screamer, pull the ball from his glove and whip it to second to double off the runner. The play ended a bases-loaded threat and saved at least two runs.
Though he has struggled at the plate, Inge's late-season play at third has been a reminder to what has been missing much of the year -- the jolt of a sublime moment, whether in the form of a diving stop, a nasty curve or timely double.
"Been a strange year," Inge said, "worse than 2003," the year the Tigers almost set the record for most losses in baseball history.
Expectations will do that.
Without them, fans stay away, as they have lately -- maybe 12,000 showed up each of the first two nights of the Royals series. And those who did spent the night booing.
"That's been the toughest part," Granderson said, "but you can't do anything about it."
He said guys in the clubhouse would joke about not going out to eat because "everywhere you go, the questions were constant: What happened? Why don't you get rid of this guy?"
Even what would normally pass as controversy slipped by quietly this week, when Gary Sheffield called for revenge against a fellow major leaguer. After learning he'd been suspended for four days for his involvement in a fracas in Cleveland last week, Sheffield told reporters Monday, "It's on."
Usually, such incendiary comments could be counted on to fire the news cycle for a few days. But that sideshow fell into a vortex this week, created by a summer of poor play, failed aspirations and the spectacular implosion of the Lions.
Still, more than 3 million fans watched at Comerica Park this season.
"It's a baseball town," Leyland said, though he acknowledged that next spring, "we might have to earn them back."